|Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest outside the British prime minister’s office [AFP]|
There are a number of protesters out to greet Binyamin Netanyahu as he kicks off his four-day European visit with a meeting in Downing Street. It’s an eclectic bunch with pro-Palestinian groups and ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed to the “Zionist state”. And it’s a reminder the world watches the Middle East.
I’ve been coming to Downing Street for years, but for the first time I’ve been ushered in through the front door to attend “brief remarks” by both Gordon Brown, the prime minister, and his Israeli counterpart.
This, we were told, was not a news conference. There were to be two questions from the UK media and two from the Israeli side. It stops a ramp up, when journalists sniff trouble and wade in with the same question trying to get an answer. And the British media wants to hear what Brown finally has to say about the decision to free the Lockerbie bomber.
I don’t know what to call it if it’s not a news conference, but it starts with the predictable expressions of support. Both agree peace in the Middle East would be a good thing. The destination’s clear – it’s the route that’s the problem.
And then it comes. The question Brown knew was coming, first up and in four parts. Essentially, the journalist (pre-selected by Downing Street) wants to know what Brown thinks of the decision to free Abdel Basset al-Megrahi.
What we got was a non-answer. The prime minister was furious at the reception al-Megrahi got when he arrived in Libya. He had discussed the case when he met Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi, the Libyan leader, in the summer, and told him there was nothing he could do – it was a quasi-judicial decision – but he would continue to fight terrorism.
And that was it. We moved on to an Israeli journalist who didn’t care about Lockerbie or the frenzy in the British media and the desire among the country’s opposition political parties to find out what Gordon thinks. It was an answer which moved the inevitable questions to follow to another day.
Down to business
The real issue here is the Middle East. Israel continues to build on land internationally recognised as Palestinian, and won’t stop. It’s going on in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which has been occupied since the 1967 war. There are reports from Israel which says they will block new developments in the West Bank in exchange for concessions from Arab states.
Netanyahu knows international pressure is getting stronger, but settlements are a bargaining tool. And if he says they will all stop now, then his right-wing coalition partners will walk out of the government. His government could collapse after just four months in office. It’s a fine line. Jerusalem, he insists, is Israel’s sovereign capital and settlement building there will go on. “Jerusalem is not a settlement,” he says.
The British prime minister re-iterates the point that the international community wants the settlement building to end, but they’ve been saying it for years. It makes no real difference except they say they’ve raised it.
And there was Iran. Netanyahu wants stronger action to stop what he sees as the clear path to weaponising their nuclear programme. “Time is running out,” he insists. A view backed by the British PM, whose clock is perhaps running a little bit slower.
The meeting with Brown is the first in a four-day trip. It’s really just a diplomatic courtesy. The real discussions take place with George Mitchell, the US special envoy, on Wednesday. That will give everyone who watches a clear indication of how far we’ve come, how far there is to go and the obstacles on the road.